The true North Pole conquered by Russians !

The event that caused a diplomatic explosion: August 2, 2007, a Russian expedition planted their national flag at a depth of 4261 meters and a latitude of 90° north. Technological achievement or manifestation of force ?

Marliave128On 2 August 2007, a Russian submersible planted a flag at a depth of 4,261 metres at the Geographic North Pole. The event, broadcast almost live on Russian television, was quick to spark irritated reactions on the part of the governments of the other circumpolar nations, who took the Russians to be making a territorial claim for the Pole. Against this backdrop, it may be worthwhile to look into the expedition’s inception and organisation.
The story goes back to 1997, onboard Russia’s 45,000-horsepower nuclear-powered icebreaker Sovietsky Soyuz, which was taking a group of American tourists to the North Pole. Sharing a bottle of vodka, the Russian officers and the cruise organisers were recounting some of the famed stories of Arctic exploration when all of a sudden someone said: “No one has ever reached the North Pole”?


The nuclear icebreaker Rossia opens a lane for the Arctic research vessel Akademik Fiodorov, conveing the two submersibles Mir, in the 1.3 meters thick ice pack covered by melting pools, bypassing large pression ridges with a thickness that can reach 10 meters - © Editions Paulsen

Is that true? To date, more than a thousand explorers, scientists and tourists have set foot on the polar pack ice: since icebreaker Arktika’s successful bid to reach the geographic pole in August 1977, two or three cruisers every year have brought groups of tourists to the top of the planet; moreover, since 1994, floating Russian ice station Camp Barneo, deployed every year in April near 89 degree North, has allowed some 200 people to set foot there every spring. “But”, the voice continued, “as the pole is in fact the point at which the Earth's axis of rotation meets the surface, no one has ever reached the true North Pole, which lies 4,000 metres under the pack ice”.


In the last days of July, Barents Sea is free of ice floe as far as the François-Joseph Land neighbourhood - © Editions Paulsen

The party included two American submariners, Don Walsh and Fred McLaren, as well as the cruise organiser, Mike McDowell, who immediately started wondering how feasible such an expedition would be. It would be a big challenge, few places being so difficult to reach: a 4,000-metre dive in water close to freezing point, under moving pack ice several metres thick.
Later in 1997, Mr McDowell set up a company, DOE, for Deep-Ocean Expeditions, offering the private sector the possibility of using submersibles capable of diving to great depths. To do this, he signed a contract with Moscow’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanography to hire its two Mir submersibles and their parent vessel, the Akademik Keldysh. He met with their designer and chief pilot, Dr Anatoly Sagalevich, who became a friend and a vital ally when putting the North Pole expedition together. Between times, Mr McDowell used the two Mir submersibles to film the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck, as well as the spectacular deep-sea hydrothermal chimneys in the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.


A big first in the exploration of the planet


The 2 submersibles Mir designed by Anatoly Sagalevitvh were the only vessels capable to succeed the operation “True North Pole”. Le 2 août 2007, Mir-1, drived by its designer, planted a titanium national flag of Russian Federation at the true geographical North Pole at a depth of 4.000 meters - © Editions Paulsen

By 2000, it was clear that the two Russian Mir submersibles, Mir-1 and Mir-2, were the only vessels capable of diving at the North Pole. An icebreaker would also be needed to reach the Pole, but no Russian icebreaker had a powerful enough crane to launch the Mirs, and it would have been impossible to install one without carrying out major and very costly structural alterations.


The submersibles Mir are capable of exploring 98% of the world's oceans. The Mirs can resist up to 600 times the atmospheric pressure. Dimensions: 7.8 X3.2 X3.m. Weight: 18.6 tons capacity: 3 persons. Propulsion speed: 5 knots. Maximum diving depth: 6000m. Diving autonomy: 20 hours - © Editions Paulsen


The only possibility was to use two vessels: a nuclear-powered icebreaker to cut the ice and another vessel equipped with a powerful crane to carry the Mirs. Talks were started with the Murmansk Shipping Company, and DOE began looking for clients to participate in the expedition. The Mirs can dive to depths of up to 6,000 metres, remain submerged for up to twenty hours and hold three people, the pilot and two observers, in a pressurised sphere 2.10 metres in diameter. Built out of a combination of steel and nickel, the sphere has three portholes made of Perspex - a light, transparent and very resistant material made out of polymethyl methacrylate - capable to withstanding up to 600 times atmospheric pressure.
Mechanical arms are used to collect specimens and to deploy instruments. The engines, lighting, cameras and onboard electronics are battery powered. The Mir’s main advantage over other submersibles was that the use of two craft offered real hope of rescue in the event of a problem.


The Akademic Fiodorov hold was equiped to house the Mir and their technical station; the two desk cranes insure the secured launch of the submersibles - © Editions Paulsen

No deep-sea submersible has ever dived under the ice, although the idea of using submarines to look at pack ice from underneath has been around since the 1930s. In August 1931, Australian Hubert Wilkins undertook the crazy scheme of reaching the North Pole in his Nautilus. The poorly prepared expedition was a failure, but proved that it was possible to advance under the pack ice. It was not until 1958 that a nuclear-powered American submarine, also named Nautilus, became the first craft to go under all the pack ice, crossing the North Pole. The next year, the Skate, taking advantage of the presence of fresh ice on the pole, surfaced there on 17 March. Since then, numerous American, Russian and British submarines patrolling under the pack ice have surfaced occasionally. Between 1993 and 1999, the US Navy gave scientists access to nuclear submarines to gather data about the ocean and the ice. This was the famous SCICEX (Scientific Ice Expeditions) programme, which proved the big reduction in the thickness of the Arctic pack ice compared with previous decades. In the spring of 2007, the British attempted to continue this programme on board the HMS Tireless, but an explosion under the ice killed two crewmembers and put an end to the project.


An eight-day expedition departing from Murmansk July 25 2007; July 29, diving test north of Frantz-Josef Land; August 2 2007, the two submersibles reach the true north pole - © Editions Paulsen

To make this historic deep-sea dive, the 20 people from the Mir team, led by Anatoly Sagalevich and a second pilot, Genya Cherniaev, started to plan all the aspects of a dive in the Arctic environment, working for the first time without the mother vessel, the Akademik Keldysh. The challenge was to ensure that the Mirs would be cable to find the opening in the pack ice, kept open by the icebreaker, even in the event of a major problem.
During a normal dive, it is easy to make an emergency resurface if the engines, hydraulics, communications or navigation systems break down, but under the pack ice, this would inevitably lead to the deaths of all occupants, who would finish trapped under the ice. For this reason, all vital systems were equipped with back-up systems. A sonar for the ice, antifreeze for the ballasts, mousse to make the vessel float better, captors and samplers were also added.


Arthur Chilingarov, deputy of Douma and Russian president of the International Polar Year joins the expedition True North Pole at Murmansk aboard the polar research vessel, Akademic Fiodorov - © Editions Paulsen

By the summer of 2001, most of the technical problems had been or were on the verge of being solved, and several clients had booked seats on the various dives. At that time, the plan was to stay four or five days at the pole to satisfy demand. Unfortunately, 9/11 forced the postponement of the project, and subsequent funding difficulties made the postponement likely to be an indefinite one. In 2005, Frederik Paulsen, a Germano-Swedish industrialist, with a passion for the polar regions, gave the project a new lease of life by accepting to fund a large slice of it, in exchange for a seat onboard one of the two submersibles.
As the research projects of a large number of paying passengers were no longer a priority, Mr McDowell restarted logistics negotiations with a view to holding the dives in July 2006. As no icebreakers were available, he was forced to push this back a year. Early in 2007, Artur Chilingarov, a polar explorer, politician and Russia’s representative for the International Polar Year, decided to undertake the logistical side. His intervention made it possible to smooth out administrative problems and to raise additional funding.


Anatoly Sagalevitch, the chief pilot and designer of the Mir submersibles received the title "Hero of Russia" five months after the True North Pole expedition along with Arthur Tchilingarov and Evgueni Cherniaev, Mir-2 pilot - © Editions Paulsen

The operation True North Pole

On 24 July 2007, ten years after the project was first conceived, the organisers of the expedition to the “real” North Pole left the port of Mourmansk. This city of 350,000 inhabitants, on the coast of the White Sea, is he biggest city in the north of the Polar Circle and is home to the Russian Northern Fleet. Polar research vessel Akademik Fedorov carried the two submersibles and the 75,000-horsepower nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossia opened the way. An MI-8 helicopter was used to take people from one vessel to the other.
Eight days later, the convoy reached the pole, after a one-day stop off the coast of the Franz Josef Land in order to test the submersibles’ various systems at a depth of 1,300 metres. On the morning of 2 August, the weather was clement, and the six submariners got into their respective craft.


The nuclear icebreaker Rossia with its 75000 ch opens a lane in the ice floe for the Akademic Fiodorov and prevents the ice from closing up over the Mir during its dive - © Editions Paulsen

The Fedorov positioned itself next to an opening in the ice, and at 5:30 GMT its crane set afloat the Mir-1, piloted by Anatoly Sagalevich, with passengers Artur Chilingarov and Vladimir Gruzdev, another Russian parliamentarian, former owner of a huge supermarket chain and also a sponsor of the expedition. As soon as it was unhooked, the submersible dived and disappeared from sight for the numerous photographers on the bridge. A quarter of an hour later, it was followed by its twin, the Mir-2, piloted by Genya Cherniaev, with passengers Frederik Paulsen and Mike McDowell. As the Mir-2 started its dive, it was struck by a huge block of ice, ejected from the Fedorov’s stem propeller, but fortunately was not damaged.
As the submersibles started their dive, surface activity was centred on one of the Fedorov’s aft laboratories, where mission control had been installed. Screens giving the dive’s parameters and voice contact were the submariners’ only link with the outside world. Navigation was, obviously, the key to success. It was vital for each of the submersibles to know its position in relation to the surface vessels and the opening in the ice at all times. And this was a lot harder than it sounds: not only could the deep ocean currents have taken the Mirs in unexpected directions, the opening in the ice was moving with the surface wind. Mir technicians accordingly installed three acoustic transponders, suspended at the end of 50-metre cables and deployed in a triangle 800 metres around the Fedorov. These transponders emitted a constant signal allowing the submersibles to localise them. A fourth transponder was left hanging directly underneath the boat, along with three very powerful spotlights, providing a visual point of reference.


The Fiodorov desk crane extract Mir-1 from the hold to launch in Arctic water - © Editions Paulsen


The separation of the Mir from desk crane is a quite delicat operation to avoid the crane hook to damage the submersible rudder - © Editions Paulsen

Onboard the Mirs, the dive went smoothly. At a pace of 30 metres per minute, the descent took three hours. The three portholes were facing in different directions, and each passenger could observe the multitude of plankton lit up by the onboard spotlights. Between 1,000 and 3,000 metres, the plankton’s density is fairly even. At around 3,500 metres, the sonar detected the seabed, which appeared as a vast abyssal plain. Mir-1 touched down 4,261 metres below the surface. The crew collected samples of water and sediment, so fine in fact that the slightest movement by the engines formed a grey cloud that enveloped the craft. Then it moved closer to the pole to plant a rustproof titanium Russian flag intended to commemorate the dive. Half an hour later, Mir-2 delicately touched down at 4,302 metres below the surface. Moving towards the pole in its turn, the crew observed that the seabed was made up solely of sediment, and that there were no rocks or debris of any kind, despite the fact that manmade waste has on several occasions gone down at the pole over the last twenty years, including two aircraft.


Keeping a close eye on the launching of the submersiblese Mir-1 and Mir-2: collision with ice sheets must be avoided - © Editions Paulsen

Two hours after having reached the seabed, the decision was made to start the return to the surface. It would have been tempting to continue exploring this strange universe for several hours, but that would have limited the amount of time available to resolve problems, had any arisen. During the dive, the currents had taken the submersibles several hundred metres from the opening at the surface, and their exploration of the seabed had left them a good kilometre away. As they were rising to the surface, the pilots noted that the signal from the transponders was very weak: in fact, two transponders were not working. However, Mir-1 easily found the opening in the pack ice and emerged to the applause of the entire team. Mir-2 only succeeded in making out the signal at a depth of 1,000 metres, but was unable to localise the source, located under the Fedorov, i.e. close to the opening in the ice. At a depth of 600 metres, the worried pilot stopped the return to the surface and started estimating the position of the opening by using the signals coming from the two remaining transponders. He then started up again, in the direction of this point.


As soon as launched and free, Mir-1 starts a 3 hours long dive down to the Arctic Ocean seabed, at 4.000 m below the sea ice - © Editions Paulsen

In the control room, the anxiety was palpable, as all contact with Mir-2 had been lost since it had risen to a depth of 1,000 metres. In the end, it was thanks to the light from the spotlights hanging under the hull of the Fedorov that pilot Genya Cherniaev managed to find the opening and narrowly avoid being pressed into the Fedorov’s hull by the current. And so, after an eight-hour dive, Mir-2 finally resurfaced attached to the crane hook.

True North Pole expedition succeeded

It is clear that this expedition, largely funded by private investors – and a lot of them foreign – was not strictly speaking a Russian government expedition aimed at claiming sovereignty over the North Pole. Granted, Anatoly Chilingarov planted the Russian flag on the seabed, but this was intended mainly to commemorate a Russian technological feat, a lot like Lachenal and Herzog waving the French flag at the summit of Annapurna – and yet the reactions were not slow in coming! Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay declared, “We are no longer in the 15th century, one can no longer travel the world, plant a flag and claim land”. The US State Department spokesperson added that planting a flag somewhere adds no legal force to a territorial claim. The strong reactions from the Canadians and the Americans were out of all proportion with the event. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to signal that the Russians were not laying claim to the North Pole and that any claim would need to be made within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


The 6 members of the True North Pole expedition (from left to right) : Frederik Paulsen, Vladimir Grouzdev, Anatoly Sagalovitch, Mike McDowell, Evgueni Cherniaev, Arthur Chilingarov - © Editions Paulsen

Strong reactions from Arctic border States

The Arctic Ocean is a semi-closed sea surrounded by five countries: the US (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Spitzberg) and the Russian Federation, whose Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ, 200 nautical miles form the coast) together form a continuous ring around the ocean. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that nations with a coastline on a semi-closed sea should coordinate their action in the following areas: the management, conservation and exploitation of the sea’s biological resources, the protection and preservation of the marine ecosystem, and the implementation of research policies and programmes. The Convention’s Article 76 stipulates that sovereignty can be exercised beyond the 200 nautical mile limit by countries that, within ten years of having ratified the Convention, provide scientific proof that the zones concerned are an extension of their continental shelf. Russia and Norway must do so by 2009, Canada and Denmark have until 2013 and 2014 respectively. In 2001, Russia submitted a claim covering a triangular zone, the apex of which is at the North Pole, extending East to meridian 169°E, and West to the Gakkel Ridge to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
In 2002, the CLCS asked Russia to provide additional information supporting its claim. It is unlikely that the recent North Pole dive by the two Mir craft will provide any scientific basis for the claim. A few decigrams of surface sediment are unlikely to provide any new insights into the matter. In comparison, in August 2004, sample-taker Vidar Viking, aided by two powerful icebreakers, took samples from the Lomonosov Ridge, allowing sediments to be recovered through a thickness of 400 metres !


Mir-1 surfacing after a 6 hours dive to the true North Pole at 4 261 m depth where it planted the Russian flag and took water and sediment samples - © Editions Paulsen

Canada and Denmark are also carrying out tests along their coasts to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of their continental shelf in order to claim sovereignty. With this in mind, the Denmark leased from mid-August to mid-September 2007 Swedish icebreaker Oden and Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory to complete the Lomrog (Lomonosov Ridge off Greenland) programme intended to acquire seismic, bathymetric and gravimetric data over the zone being claimed. The US, which still has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is isolated, and had not ruled out that one unintended impact of the Russian expedition could be its ratification of the Convention. Norway is the only country with a coast on the White Sea to favour international cooperation to resolve problems relating to the exploitation of the Arctic’s potential resources. In the face of nascent conflicts, it would seem that this approach is the most promising as a means of fostering a fair and concerted use of this important ocean. The fear of an endless dispute, with claim followed up by counter-claim, has prompted a number of specialists to declare that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is not a sufficiently strong mechanism to resolve the Arctic’s future status and to come out in favour of a multilateral treaty, similar to the one governing Antarctica since 1959.

For more informations
• “ The Battle for the Next Energy Frontier : The Russian Expedition and the Future of Arctic Hydrocarbons ”, par S. Midkhatovitch et T. F. Krysiek (in “ Oxford Energy Comment ”, août 2007)
• “ Les Plateaux continentaux extérieurs de l’océan Arctique - Droits, souveraineté et coopération internationale ”, par R. McNab (in “ Méridien ”, été 2006)
• “ Map of the Arctic Basin Sea Floor : A History of Bathymetry And Its Interpretation ”, par J. R. Weber (in “ Arctic ”, vol. 36, n° 2, 1983)
• “ Gloubina 4 261 m ”, par F. Paulsen, M. McDo­well, A. Tchilingarov, A. Sagalevitch, M. Bortchik et V. Lizun (éditions Paulsen, Moscou, 2007)
• “ Russia and The Arctic : The Last Dash North ”, par M. A. Smith & K. Giles (in “ Advanced Research and Assessment Group ”, Russian Series, 7/26, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom).

By Christian de Marliave, a prime figure in polar logistics. After working for 10 years on the development of a floating base in the North Pole, he is currently the scientific program coordinator at Tara Arctic.

© July 2008 - Le Cercle Polaire / Editions Paulsen - All Rights Reserved

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